Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Rise of the environment-killing pedestrian zombies

Why are most of my blog posts just repostings of letters I wrote to the forums at Salon.com? Maybe because I expect that someone will actually read. Or maybe it's because I need a fire lit under my butt before I produce anything I consider worth reading.

Today's kindling is brought to you by "leading environmentalist" Chris Goodall, author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life and foremost proponent of the new and evil "driving is more eco-friendly than walking" meme. I attached this lengthy letter to Andrew Leonard's skeptical analysis of the claim.

Goodall's basic claim is that, if you have to choose between walking to a grocery store 1.5 miles away and driving the same distance, the food needed to replenish the burned calories has a bigger greenhouse gas impact than the gasoline burned.

There are obvious problems with this research (beyond the fact that his book's website breathlessly announces this conclusion as "new research", without mentioning that the research is entirely his own). First, and most suspicious, he assumes that all the calories come from factory-farmed beef, which has enormous environmental impact when compared to eating lower off the food chain. The other factor which severely undermines his conclusions is this: once a person decides on a car trip, it becomes very easy to travel further. Rather than the three miles in Goodall's calculations, they might go ten miles to take advantage of the two for one sale at a competing grocer, or a few more miles to go to multiple grocers, or another dozen miles to Costco to stock up on soy milk (guilty as charged).

There are other, less pressing inaccuracies, some of which actually help his case. He forgets that starting up a cold engine for a short trip uses more gas than a car's MPG rating would indicate. He also ignores cycling as an option (cycling burns about half as many calories per mile as walking). He forgets that you would burn more calories walking back, because you're carrying a lot of groceries. He seems to have made a mistake converting from miles to kilometers. A three mile walk should burn 300 calories, not 180. 180 is more likely from a three kilometer walk.

This crappy, back-of-the-napkin calculation doesn't warrant near the publicity it's receiving; it certainly shouldn't drive anyone's lifestyle changes. When I first heard of this, I (like Andrew Leonard) assumed that the calculation was just hyperbole designed to show how woefully inefficient our industrialized food production is. But reading Goodall's own "research", he mentions replacing walking with driving as the environmentally friendly option, not replacing that slab of factory-farmed steak with some peaches from the local farmer's market[1]. Sure, towards the end he makes a wistful comment about "reduc[ing] the greenhouse gas intensity of our foodstuffs." But it is supremely irresponsible for anyone who touts himself as a "carbon-reduction guru" to make "walk less, drive more" his only concrete suggestion.

Elsewhere, he has compared carbon credits to medieval indulgences[2], and has been commissioned by the Times of London to do a "carbon audit" of Prince Charles (a celebrity climate change crusader, somewhat akin to Al Gore on this side of the pond). Such behavior makes me suspect that the damage Gooding is doing to environmentalism is due to malice, not incompetence.


After a timely e-mailed response from Mr. Goodall, and a deeper perusal of lowcarbonlife.net, the author strikes me as sincerely committed to helping people reduce their environmental impact. I still worry that, on this particular issue, he's framing the story in a disastrous way, and a lot of people are going to take the message the wrong way. But I think his book has a lot of timely information, and it will be good for everybody if it sells well.


[1] In several places in Gooding's report, he goes to great lengths to equate factory-farmed meat to all foodstuffs. Elsewhere, he calls ruminant-based food production "particularly damaging".

[2] I don't trust carbon credits yet, but I do believe that with better science, more auditing, and international agreements to give them more standing, they're going to become a key part of the fight.

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